This may single-handedly be the most interesting Bible film I have ever seen.
Jesus Christ Superstar, based on the hit musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera) and Tim Rice (lyricist for the back-half of the Disney Renaissance), is directed by Norman Jewison. Beyond the fact I wanted to do a special and unusual review for Easter, Jewison's filmography got me excited to see the movie beyond some morbid curiosity to watch Jesus belt high C's. I really enjoyed his adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, which is in my opinion the best musical ever written; I remember being sick at home, sitting through it all, and rewatching scenes from it as I prepared to do the stage musical during my sophomore year of high school. With a director of this caliber, I knew some of the stranger choices were going to have a significant reason.
And as if the film didn't think the title was strange enough, it opens with a tour bus in the Middle Eastern desert. We come to understand this is an acting troupe that just decided to perform this show in the middle of nowhere with no perceivable audience. Perhaps it's like the Civil War reenactments, where most of the charm is in participating in it (I have not been involved in or spectated over a Civil War reenactment so this is just speculation on my part). Regardless, as the overture goes on, the players get into their costumes and take their places. Here is where I found the framing narrative of the acting troupe particularly useful. By establishing that we are not supposed to be witnessing a early A.D. period piece but rather a performance by 70s actors, it lets us easily forgive the anachronisms in costuming (I do not believe the High Priests bared so much of their chests, or Judas looked like he came out of Soul Train), lyrics ("What's the buzz?" the disciples sing), and musical stylings (it's a rock musical about the Passion of the Christ, after all). Though he was not in the film, I could faintly hear Robin Goodfellow saying, "If we shadows have offended thee...."
After the overture, we go straight into Jesus's final week from the point of view of Judas Iscariot (played by the electrifying Carl Anderson), refreshingly from a more conflicted side. Usually Judas is characterized as the black sheep, the wickedest of the disciples, and the thick-headed traitor that led Jesus to his death; here, Rice and Webber characterize him as perhaps the most honest admirer of Jesus. Whereas everyone else in Jerusalem appears to fawn over Jesus, crying "Hey J.C.! J.C.! Won't you smile at me?" and performing almost animalistic dances like he were a rock superstar (especially Simon the Zealot in the appropriately titled number "Simon Zealotes"), Judas watches from afar, shaking his head disapprovingly. Throughout the film, he questions if Jesus actually has a plan or if he is just letting the crowds get to his head. Regardless, Judas finds himself deeply admiring Jesus as a teacher and a man: he's just not sure if his subject of admiration is suffering from delusions of grandeur. And when we see the crowds seem to blindly praise Jesus and then blindly cry for his crucifixion, as the melodies of their hosanna become the melodies of their ridicule, it isn't hard to empathize with Judas, who remains the same questioning and tortured soul from his first frame to his last.
As far as entertainment goes, the scenes between Carl Anderson's raw energy as Judas and Ted Neeley's complex performance as Jesus are the heart of film, and gratefully the most interesting parts. These roles defined their careers, with both of them reprising their roles for the stage multiple times into the 2000s. Neeley's Jesus, though, is probably the most controversial part of the film. In the writers' ponderances of faith, they take the attitude of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, crank it up to eleven, and make it present throughout the film. As the day of crucifixion looms, Neeley's Jesus wonders if he's leaving a lasting legacy and if his death will mean anything, even fearing it: when his admirers sing, "Hey J.C., J.C., would you die for me?" his face goes from all smiles to grave realization at what has to happen according to the Father's plan. Whether this is a "correct" interpretation or not will usually end in a resounding "no," I think it is a daring and at least interesting way to look at it. The Gethsemane scene in the Bible is the most human moment that we ever see of Jesus, a moment of extreme stress and anxiety that even those who read Jesus as if he were a monotone philosopher are affected by the drama in his emotional prayers. Such emotion is beautifully portrayed in one of the most powerful showstoppers in musical history, as Neely wanders the Garden in fervent prayer in "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)." To me, this is the defining moment of the show. This is why it is a rock musical: in no other style could we get the raw emotion that comes when an performer belts at extremes of his range or the effective delivery of agony this brings. This culminates with the true terror in Jesus's eyes as he cries, "My God! My God! Why have you forgotten me?" in his final moments on the cross, which was a very Biblical moment that I had never thought of in this way: did Jesus fear death? Did he fear separation from the Father more? Was he ever worried in his 33 years on Earth?
The film ends with the crucifixion of Jesus after a lengthy and quirky trial by Pilate, the Pharisees, and Herod. As Jesus gives his final breath, all the other performers pack up and leave, many of them solemn; this performance definitely had an impact on them who experienced it. But after pondering this final scene, I think I've come to understand the symbolic point of the van device. After Jesus dies, the faith of his followers appears to have been artificial. While Judas's flaw may have appeared to be that his expectations of Jesus were far too checked, his flaw is much the same as everyone else's: they only see him as a great man. Sure, Peter and the other disciples (in what little screen time they do get) accept his word that he is the Son of God, but once Jesus does not free himself from his Roman captors, they seem to accept him as just a man. Even Mary Magdalene, as she struggles with her romantic feelings towards him, tells herself, "He's a man. He's just a man." And as these characters shed their costumes, though moved by the story of Jesus, leave him behind at the cross. In a way, I think this is representative of an interpretation of Jesus's contemporaries' faith in him: it was all an act. The only one who does not return to the tour bus is the Jesus character. As the final frame closes on the cross and the sunset, we see the silhouette of a man walking, which we presume is representative of Jesus's resurrection. In this case, the only one who wasn't putting on an act was Jesus; he was and is the real deal, the resurrected Son of God, who did what he had to do, performed amazing miracles (which the film admits he did do), fought spiritual and human battles internally and externally, and conquered death. The story does not go through to Easter and the following days where the apostles' arc of faith was resolved, but I think it was a smart choice. With the rest of the story presented, this idea, this presentation of his followers' loss of hope and faith would not have been as potent since they would have had to rush three days of screentime and not really be able to dwell on it.
So despite being ripe for controversy, containing plenty of editorial content and artistic liberties from the writers, and having the same weirdness that pervades Webber and Rice's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I think there are still important messages and questions even Christians can get and ponder in Jesus Christ Superstar. It is certainly nothing to burn theaters over or even picket. By no means should anyone look at this as a direct adaptation of Scripture with musical numbers added, but rather they should look on it as a thought-provoking, character-driven art project that dares to look at its subjects with appropriate skepticism and meaningful complexity, portraying them as human and conflicted. I recently talked with a pastor friend of mine about The Last Temptation of Christ, and he commended Scorsese for openly asking hard questions about faith through film and honestly portraying Jesus as fully-God and fully-man through a hypothetical final temptation in that film. I look at this film like that, not as a presentation of truth but as an open ponderance of a commonly-accepted truth through the catalyst of the Judas character. And for that I commend it, despite its lack of a real story and abundance of slow scenes.
Have you seen Jesus Christ Superstar? What did you think of it? What films really made you consider your faith, or lack thereof? I truly hope you enjoyed reading this special, if belated, Easter review, and I hope you and yours had a blessed Easter weekend!